NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial is the closest thing you’ll find to a crowd-sourced exhibition on view in New York right now — perhaps anywhere. Conceived during his first weeks on the job last fall by the Museum of Arts and Design’s (MAD) new director, Glenn Adamson, the show was organized at lightning speed, by museum standards: eight months. A brain trust of 300 leaders from New York’s cultural community nominated a pool of artists, designers, and fabricators of various sorts, which was then winnowed to about 100 participants by a jury that included Adamson, the exhibition’s curator, Jake Yuzna, and MAD Chief Curator Lowery Stokes Sims. About 80% of the participants are new to MAD, which lends this show a sense of possibility about the talent that lies just beyond this museum’s doorstep.
Biennials can’t seem to escape scathing critiques, no matter their location, theme, or prestige. In a sense, the MAD Biennial suffers from the expectations raised by its moniker, with all the thoughtfulness and focus the term implies. The exhibition is in fact a breezily assembled survey that rotates around the axis of hand fabrication in New York City. Beyond this, no particular aesthetic or conceptual grid seems to unite the material. Perhaps because it was curated by committee, the installation lacks of a strong aesthetic point of view, or a specific cultural and geographic sense of place. One does not walk away having discovered the maker culture of a new NYC neighborhood, for instance, or learned the identities of the mysterious New Yorkers behind an array of oft-overlooked urban crafts. Who’s in charge of custom-fabricating those stainless steel hotdog carts, with their special compartments and heating elements? Who makes replacement subway tiles when the originals inevitably fall off the wall? Who are the garment workers making the ersatz couture handbags for sale in Chinatown?
Despite the lack of cultural specificity, on its own terms, the biennial possesses a certain logic. The installation is organized thematically around various areas of material mastery, such as “Community Garden,” which features Paula Hayes’s wonderful blown-glass terrariums, and “Backstage,” where visitors find works devoted to fabricating contexts for performance, including the Metropolitan Opera’s set design for Der Fledermaus. Other sections sport titles that are charmingly reminiscent of those you’d find in a museum of science and industry: the “Hall of Tools” features carver Chris Pellettier’s stone bust of two Janus-style heads representing the extremes of wealth and poverty in New York City today. Pellettier’s story is emblematic of today’s working New York artisan: trained in the stone-carving apprenticeship program at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, he moved to the Open Studios at MAD when the cathedral’s stone shop was closed to make way for a new high-rise.
Indeed, this exhibition has taken its share of flack from critics for what adds up to an overall impression of a deluxe creative economy catering to the needs of a privileged few. In her New York Times review, Roberta Smith expressed a feeling of dismayed-but-not-surprised concern that the biennial misses an opportunity in its apparent non-critique of wealth inequality:
Too often, [the Biennial’s] contents look distressingly appropriate for a city with a shrinking middle class, whose architectural fabric is being ruined by a flood of new condos for rich people who don’t actually live here. It would be great not to condone this particular madness.
Smith’s take certainly resonates — the biennial’s physical presence evokes all the polychrome razzle-dazzle of a high-end design fair, featuring a series of mini-installations evocatively described in the exhibition’s press release as “immersive tableaus.” The show also includes somewhat lackluster works by some of New York’s unclassifiable cultural treasures like Laurie Anderson and Yoko Ono.
High-profile architect Rafael de Cárdenas of Architecture at Large (whose clients include Nike, Barney’s, and Nordstrom) has designed “Stepin One 2,” a dark space inspired by 1980s and ’90s club culture, filled with succulent plants and glowing black lights. If you’ve ever longed to pause for a moment in a public space while imagining yourself as a femme (or gentleman) fatale in a particularly well-art-directed episode of Miami Vice, your dream has come true. The museum’s lobby welcomes visitors with a huge wall of gold-hued Mylar that can best be described as “feathered,” Farrah Fawcett–style, and paired with a wonderfully odd glass chandelier by Brooklyn-based lighting designer Lindsay Adelman. The impression it leaves is that of a hip decorator’s showhouse, fitted into MAD’s chic but compact building at the southern tip of Central Park.
Yet, there is an honesty to this: the MAD Biennial may not be a self-aware and well-mannered Marxist critique of New York’s cultural ecosystem, but it does paint a pretty accurate picture of the city these days. When I sat down with Adamson in July to talk about the biennial and his plans for MAD’s next act, it was clear that forging lasting connections in the museum’s home turf is a top priority, as is expanding the general public’s understanding of what “making” really means — something MAD has long struggled to explain through its programming. In the biennial’s catalogue, Adamson writes:
Some of the best and most important stories about contemporary making have not been told. We want to get underneath the surface of the city, into its bones. NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial is, above all, a portrait of social relationships. Skilled making binds communities together and forges new alliances. If we can bring that kind of connective power into our galleries, then—like the makers we celebrate—we will have done our work well.
In the exhibition itself, this core message of showing visitors the activity “under the hood” (Adamson’s words in our conversation) of New York’s creative economy doesn’t come across as clearly as it could. Still, certain works on view stand out — perhaps inadvertently — as illustrations of the particular sorts of visible and invisible labor that keep, for instance, the art world running. One especially wonderful example is the complex presence of a Koonsian sculpture by Wendell Castle nestled inside a custom crate by the Brooklyn-based art storage and transport concern Boxart. The two objects presented together like this set the mind spinning: What individual made the crate? With its precise interior architecture made to shelter and protect the sculpture, could the crate itself be considered art? Is the art handler or crate-maker in question “also an artist,” as so many art workers are? One practitioner — Castle — is known by name and reputation, and the other known only as an anonymous figure representing a small business catering to the art industrial complex. This example gets closest to exposing what’s “under the hood.”
What Adamson is doing actually has roots, he’s pleased to acknowledge, in the museum’s earliest days, starting with the 1956 exhibition Craftsmanship in a Changing World, which explored what craft meant in a contemporary context and which he says was the inspiration for the recently opened exhibition What Would Mrs. Webb Do? The Mrs. Webb in question is Aileen Osborn Webb, the philanthropist and doyenne of handcrafted postwar modernism who founded MAD, then called the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. The combination of her personal wealth and the modest scale of the museum’s early geographic and economic footprint created an environment perfectly ripe for programmatic experimentation. In 1963, when the museum was just 10 years old, a tall young man sporting unironic black plastic glasses and a skinny tie took the helm as director, overseeing the small organization then housed in a townhouse on East 53rd Street. Paul J. Smith, 32 years old at the time, was an artist who’d worked in the museum’s Education department since 1957. With a background in department store merchandising and a winning, easy-going temperament, Smith took charge of the relatively nimble organization at a time when there were no historical precedents dictating what a “craft museum” should look like or what programmatic objectives they should aim to achieve.
The list of thematic and group exhibitions that Smith devised and oversaw in the 1960s and ’70s is astonishing. Today, young and mid-career museum professionals eagerly attend conferences and workshops to refine their understanding of “social practice” or “public engagement” in institutional settings, hoping to “animate” or “activate” their constituencies. It is humbling and inspiring to realize that Paul Smith did all of it — a happening that involved dissolving paper in the street, an exhibition focused on the artistry of professional bakers — decades before the concept of relational aesthetics was a twinkle in our eyes.
In a wide-ranging interviewconducted by Colin Fanning as part of the Bard Graduate Center’s Craft, Art & Design Oral History Project, Smith recounts this period in the context of the rapidly evolving broader social environment and the museum’s own situation, flying just under the radar of the mainstream art world. With a tiny gallery space and no auditorium for lectures or educational programming, Smith took to the streets and made the entire museum into something he characterizes as an “educational zone.” Smith recalls the 1964 exhibition Amusement Is…, which explored toys, fantasy, and play and opened in the fall of 1964:
I heard that Charles Eames had designed a ‘musical tower’ that was made for a World’s Fair exhibit, so I contacted him and included it in our exhibit. We placed it in our twenty-foot atrium space. It was a vertical xylophone. So if you dropped a ball in the top, it would play a tune as it descended to the main floor. We had other artworks where the public could activate an object, so that was a beginning of a break from ‘do not touch’ to ‘touch.’
Smith had a fruitful series of collaborations with New York City itself, including a 1966 “Cartoon Performance” in Central Park, where then City Parks Commissioner Thomas Hoving picked up a brush to decorate a banner honoring the legacy of Central Park’s designer, Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1973, the museum hosted the “Make a Banner-Fly a Banner” workshop, which culminated in a parade around Rockefeller Center led by Marilyn Wood, a dancer who’d worked with Merce Cunningham.
But the exhibition that most closely resembles the purview of NYC Makers, and best illustrates how New York City has changed in the ensuing decades, is Hands & Heart: A Look at the Traditional Skills of the Lower East Side. This 1974 exhibition was organized with a Lower East Side Community Group called CAW Collect, and components were on view at the museum as well as at local cultural hubs like the Henry Street Settlement and the Hamilton Fish Library. The forward to the catalogue notes, movingly, that “maintaining a village economy in New York City is hard. Rents are high and materials expensive. This is hard on the small shop or individual, but, then, there are many kinds of payment in the world.” The artisans featured in this exhibition were mostly foreign-born — Eastern European, Chinese, South American — reflecting the community on the ground in the Lower East Side and the rich diversity of skilled work that sustained it. Cloth doll-maker Felicita Bayron’s creations, “Madamas,” were custom-sewn as gifts, usually for good luck or as religious objects. Walter Dutka, the son of a Ukranian church designer and architect, made scale models of wooden, onion-dome churches. Brothers Raffaele and Domenico Ranieri made sculptural architectural ornaments for buildings, graves, monuments, and fountains.
None of these makers were well-known, and the community they served is long dispersed. To contrast this exhibition with the MAD Biennial serves to illustrate how New York has changed in the ensuing decades. Hands & Heart was wedded to its home turf, whereas NYC Makers tackles goods and services designed by and for the professional creative class that increasingly calls New York home (at least on paper). In doing so, it holds an ethically sourced, artisanal, hand-wrought mirror up to the city that it serves. It accurately captures several layers of the city’s creative output, while others float just beneath its gaze.
NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial continues at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Midtown, Manhattan) through October 12.